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The Other Side of Adoption

by Cameron Lee Small

There was a time when I cried out for my mom. And a time when she didn’t answer back. Permanently.


 . . .


 . . .

A part of my inner world was ruined. I was born in Korea and relinquished into foster care at age three. An American family adopted me.

 I’ve had reoccurring dreams throughout my life. They still come back from time to time. There are four themes in total. One begins inside a blue-dark tunnel, big enough to fit a small raft. The sounds of drips and splashes echo softly. I float cautiously on a stream of run-off water, inward, toward some large epicenter shaped like a hollow cement cylinder the size of a skyscraper. When I arrive near the opening, my point of view toggles as if looking down from a drone. No light, but somehow I see there are multitudes of tunnels, water steadily pouring in from each one, all lined up around the perimeter leading to this single location, which is dark and bottomless. That’s as far as the dream ever takes me. I still have questions: Did I get poured into the abyss? What does the abyss represent? Would I try to paddle back or jump out of the raft at the last minute? Am I allowed to? Who put me in the tunnel? Does anyone know I’m in here?

I began to wrestle with those questions again as an Asian American faith-based adult adoptee during my reunion trip to Korea, at night, in a taxi cab. Two friends and I crammed into the backseat. There was a lull in our conversation and I glanced out the window, in awe, driving through Seoul’s busy streets. Colorful city lights and neon words displayed on buildings, the Korean language mesmerizing. I started wondering about what it would have been like to grow up here, with my mom, my family.

That’s when my grief erupted. Nearly thirty years of it. In a way I’d never felt before. Crashing back onto its home shore as if it were saving up from the moment I left. An event horizon in my journey as an adoptee. As a person. Blood with a heartbeat returned to its body. Something inside me was awakened; resuscitated; resurrected.

I tried to hold it in, but under a tidal wave like that I just had to endure it—this consciousness—and stay with the feelings that had finally outgrown the fictions that hemmed them in. A few drops, welled up, turned into sobbing and convulsing. My friends didn’t know what to do. I didn’t either.

However, along with the confusion and sorrow, even guilt for allowing such a reaction to be alive inside me, there was a strange comfort. Not from people. But the soil whispered up to me,

“You’re so sad.”

“You’re here, now.”

“I see you.”

“You wish things could have been different.”

“You have so many questions.”

“It doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s not fair.”

“You’ve held it in for so long.”

 “It hurts. You’ve endured so much.”

“I’ve missed you.”

A fountainhead of lament I didn’t know existed. Maybe I’d dreamed of it or maybe this was a dream. My heart was emptied and filled at the same time. Grief poured onto the land where my mother saw me for the first and last time. I was filled, my existence validated. Not full completely. But affirmed simply by being. And by allowing what was—to be. I returned to a form of dust through which my Creator knit me together and was met with a resounding message: “You’re allowed to be here. You’re not crazy. The lot is complicated, but you’re not alone.”

It was mirrors and windows in psychological and spiritual dimensions. Not prepared for, yet hungered for. And it was empowerment, somehow, as I began to accept this inner groan that felt too deep for words.


Although my first trip back to Korea was filled with grief, I would eventually see it as a healthy, invaluable step in my journey as a person. My grieving in Korea did not diminish my being. I felt as if a new part of me came to life. And something allowed me to relate with my life in a profoundly new way. My grief-turned to-mourning was part of a larger, internal transfiguration, one in which my consciousness about adoption shifted into something different from where it was when I first arrived. I started to be more honest with people. I allowed myself to cry. In conversations I started to check in on how others were feeling, and felt more available to share my feelings with them, too. Perhaps there was more of me to show. But only after taking an honest look back at what and who I had missed.

For a majority of my life in the United States, I knew I felt grief, but it wasn’t acknowledged. I didn’t know how. Or even that I could. But there, in Korea, I felt some kind of permission. Whether I willed it myself or received it supernaturally, I’m unsure. Maybe both.

But it was permission to recognize how Korea sent a child across the ocean, because he was “illegitimate,” and would never fully receive him back because he came back as someone else. Lee Hee-Seong was now just a name on paper. A life passed. Relieved, by some interpretations. Yet, for so many children, a life forgotten. Dissolved. Adopted. Now, I was Cameron Lee Small. American. Foreigner. The distance was disturbing to some locals as they questioned my lack of Korean language skills. There was so much I needed to mourn. And learn.

I’m not convinced adoption is something we just get over.

Adoption is something we carry with us and navigate throughout our lives.

Adapted from The Adoptee's Journey  by Cameron Lee Small. ©2024 by Cameron Lee Small. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.


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